Sunday, 23 January 2011

Public or Private High School? - a question of fees, fees and more fees

2011 will be a big year for DS1 - he's in the final year of Primary School (Year 6 in the NSW system) and will be sitting the selective high schools test and private high schools selection and scholarship tests over the next couple of months. Fortunately there is a good local public High School available (the one I attended), so it won't be a major drama if he doesn't get a place in one of the four selective high schools he nominated on his selective high school test application. I've also had him on the "waiting list" for Sydney Grammar School (one of the state's best private high schools) since he was one year old, but he may not get a spot as a) those who have been attending the Sydney Grammar Prep School for the seven years of primary education get automatic entry, b) sons of "old boys" and those with siblings already attending get higher priority than those on the "waiting list" to enter in Year 7. In any event, with the high annual fees (At AUD$22941 per annum (for Forms I - VI, non-boarding), the tuition fees are among the highest of any secondary day school in the country) DS1 would have to do very well on the scholarship test and win one of the dozen or so available scholarships for us to be able to afford sending him there for six years of secondary education (especially as DS2 is also on the Sydney Grammar waiting list, so would probably also attend Sydney Grammar if DS1 went there).

An article in today's SMH states that private school fees have risen 100% over the past ten years. So I have to wonder if it would really be worth spending the large amounts of money required to send DS1 and DS2 to private school anyhow. Sydney Grammar was originally established as a "feeder school" for Sydney University, but nowadays there is no problem getting a place at Sydney Uni if you get a good enough mark in the Higher School Certificate exams in Year 12. And, depending on your field of study, one of the other universities in Sydney woulde be a better choice (eg. NSW, UTS, or Macquarie). And if DS1 doesn't do well on the HSC there's always UWS ;) . These days the high school you attended doesn't have any direct influence on university entrance, and I suspect a private school education has also lost a lot of the career benefits the "old boys network" used to have in the past (similar to how membership of the Masons used to open more doors in the past). There seem to be a lot of "old boys" that ended up with fairly mediocre middle management careers despite the benefits of attending private school for six years - and in those cases the money spent on fees would probably have been better spent on setting the children up in their own business after completing uni.

So, although it would be nice for DS1 to win a half (or full) scholarship and be able to attend Sydney Grammar, I don't think he would be significantly better off than if he is able to attend a selective high school. Academically, he might even be get more benefit from selective high school than private school. If he does well on the upcoming tests and has the choice of either a half-scholarship to Sydney Grammar or entry to one of the better selective high schools, we'll probably choose selective high school due to the cost of private school. On the other hand, if we were choosing between a half-scholarship for Sydney Grammar or attending his fourth choice Selective High School, we'd probably try to scrape together the funds to send him to Sydney Grammar. In reality, DS1 will most likely end up attending the local non-selective public High School. He didn't do well enough on the "Opportunity Class" (years 5-6 of Primary School) test two years ago to win an OC place (I did), so, although there are slightly more Selective High School places available than OC places, he may not have the opportunity to attend either private school or selective High School.

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mOOm said...

If child is planning to go to university then it seems to make sense to go to a high school that is good enough to get them into the university of their choice but that there aren't a lot of benefits in going to a high school that is more prestigious as once you have a degree who cares what high school you went to? In the past when fewer people went to university and when it was harder for students to get into the best universities except from the best high schools the whole "old boy" thing was more important than it is today IMO. The same applies if you plan to go to grad school. Then you just need to go to an undergrad uni that is good enough to get you in. Of course, if you can get a scholarship to go to Harvard or MIT etc. then go but otherwise any of the Australian Go8 universities or any good US state flagship university is good enough. But you don't want to go to UWS or Northern Iowa State etc. if you can avoid it...

Anonymous said...

The competition for selective school places is intense. Are you providing extra tuition for your child in preparation for the exam?

On high schools, you can save on the private school fees and employ tutors to bring their levels up in order to get into uni. However, do you find in lower rated high schools the environment (classmates/teachers/..) is less conducive to learning? said...

DS1 has been self-studying math a couple of years ahead of his grade for the past couple of years using the excellent, free "" service (sponsored by McDonalds) for Australian high school students. And he does some practive tests (math, science and computing) using the free site. His creative writing wasn't very strong, despite him being an excellent reader, so he attended a creative writing class once a week after school last term, and he's enjoying his writing a lot more and has improved a lot. He's also going to attend a one-day workshop for students preparing for the selective test later this week.

I'm not sending him to any regular coaching or tuition classes for the selective schools test, as the educational literature I've seem suggests that there isn't much benefit from this sort of "cram" coaching (and may be detrimental for gifted children). I did, however, pay for a 6-month subscription to an online service ( that provides daily 40 minute online practice tests in a format similar to the selective schools tests, so he usually does one forty minute practice test each day. It's a good way for him to become familiar with the test format and to learn good exam technique (he ran out of time on the first of the OC tests two years ago, spending too much time stuck on a couple of the harder questions early in the paper, so better exam technique would have improved his result). He also does one practice creative writing exercise through the same service, which provides quite good feedback and tips on how to improve his writing.

The practice selective school test (math, english, and general ability) are pretty good, but we have come across a few questions that were ambiguous (ie. several of the answer options were correct, and I often didn't agree that the official "correct answer" was the most correct choice) and a couple of questions where I think they have the wrong answer option listed as the correct response. And although the service provides graphical charts of your history of test results, the tests are generated by random selection from a bank of questions, so there seems to be quite a lot of variation in the overall difficulty of the daily tests. And there is no indication of how these test scores relate to scores achieved by pupils in the real selective tests - so it's hard to know if a score of 39/45 is good, bad, or borderline.

Once we get the actual test results for DS1 I may do a post comparing his selective school score with the distribution of results he got on the practice tests for each component. said...

Yes, I'd expect attending a high school that had a history of poor HSC results would not help DS1 do well academically. So it's fortunate that there are a couple of public High Schools (non-selective) in our area that have a history of good academic results. If we lived in an area with no "good" public High Schools to choose from, then getting into a selective high school (or paying for a private school) would be much more important.

On the other hand, we haven't even listed the top selective high school on DS1's application. Aside from the fact that he has little chance of getting a good enough score to get a place there, I think James Ruse Agricultural High School is too much of an academic "hot house". I think having a bit of academic competition in high school is good (it shouldn't be too easy to come "first" in a subject), but it could be demotivating for a gifted child to always come in the bottom of his class at James Ruse despite working hard!

Anonymous said...

Has DS1 made it into any selective school or private schools? said...

As updated in a later post, DS1 got offered an "interview" for Sydney Grammar, but not a scholarship. However, he had already been offered a place at Manly Selective HS, which ranked in the top 10 NSW HS for last year's HSC result, so we're happy that he's going to attend Manly Selective HS.

Even if DS1 had been offered a half-scholarship to Sydney Grammar we would probably have sent him to Manly, as it is only a 25-min bus trip from home, whereas Sydney Grammar would have involved at least an hour travel each way.

If he'd been offered a full-scholarship it would have been a difficult choice to make.

Anonymous said...

congrats. was this first/second choice of selective school.

Here is my situation

Offered partial scholarship one of prestigious girls school.

Offered second choice selective - Top 8 ranked schooled in NSw.

Same distance from Home. What is your take on this?

Anonymous said...

In our situation, my daughter was offered a 100% scholarship to a great private school, and was also offered a place in our first choice selective school, we went with the selective school after much agonising purely on the fact that she would be with like minded pupils, this school is ranked in the top 10 and has an excellent record for uni prospects, on the topic of tutoring etc, we had no tutoring at all, we did look at the free mock exams on the selective schools website and she did 4 of those. Interestingly there were a lot of pupils who were tutored purely to score high on the exam, and it now seems some are struggling to keep up, which i think is so demoralising for the child, so my advice would be only apply for these schools if your child wants this and they have been scoring minimum of 8's on their Naplan tests.

Anonymous said...

We are in a very similar situate to the above: offered a 100% acadamic scholarship to a top 20ish private high school(Reddam House in the Eastern suburbs), and also 1st choice of selective schools (North Sydney Girls), and we still can't decide completely, but have inclination for the private school for the following reasons: 1) more resources spent on teachers 2) wider social experience for the next 6 years 3) rank/performance in her class/grade which maybe good for self esteem/how she will feel about herself. However one reservation I have, is that Reddam does not have the repution/history as NSGH.

We will probably do the open days again more thoroughly and decide.

Anonymous said...

Was really surprised by the detail in your article with respect to admission into Sydney Grammar School. My son attended the school and is now at university studying medicine. His father/grandfathers/uncles did not attend SGS. It is a private selective school and admission is based on performance in an entry test and interview for new students. My understanding is that students from the feeder Prep schools are expected to meet a certain standard and those parents of students at risk of not being able to cope with the minimum standard and workload expected, are gently "encouraged" to consider other options for high school. My son was above average in terms of intelligence and effort, but not the top of the top, so I don't think the preferential treatment of "sons of old boys" argument is strictly correct. I know of many old boys whose sons were not offered a place based on their ranking and performance in the entry test and interview.

Further, from my experience, unfortunately the school a student attends certainly DOES have a significant (if not direct) impact on University entrance, because 50% of the HSC mark (in NSW) is derived from the school assessment mark, which is moderated based on the performance of the entire school's cohort in comparison to the overall HSC candidature. If everyone does well. The whole school goes up - hence the Selective Schools are CONSISTENTLY positioned at the TOP of the HSC league tables!

Hope my comments are useful. said...

Just a (belated) update. DS1 ended up attending Manly Selective as I said, and enjoyed it a lot. He did quite well in the HSC and got into the uni/course he wanted (Computer Science/Commerce(Economics) double degree at UNSW). He also did a first year UNSW computer Science course while in Year 5 which he could count towards his degree if he wanted (but as he only got a Credit in the course, he thinks he'll not both applying for the credit and just do another subject while at UNSW). After his first year he decided he wasn't that keen on doing the double degree (he doesn't think it will make it easier to get a computer science job, or be much benefit - I think it *would* be helpful to progress his career from entry level coding to project management and higher level management jobs, but it is his decision/choice). So he's now just doing the straight Computer Science degree at UNSW and is in his second year.

DS2 did well enough to get into OC for Years 5/6 (he went to Artarmon), and like DS1 is now attending Year 7 at Manly Selective.